Though the central theme of Dave Eggers’ 2013 technology-driven dystopian novel The Circle jars readers and indirectly instructs them to disconnect electronically from a world where a single American company has far more control than any fascist dictatorship in real life, the author includes a tragic character named Mercer, whose morals are in line with what many readers believe theirs to be. In just four years since its publication as of this writing, the novel has garnered more and more attention from those who identify the trajectory of American culture to be poisoned by an ever-increasing addiction to social media presence. As the number of unique–and presumably human–users create accounts on enormously popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, the real-life “Circle” discussed in the novel is arguably coming closer and closer to completion and reality. Paradoxically, and perhaps unintentionally, many of these human users submit public and semi-public posts pining for simpler times. Parents and grandparents are prone to post commentaries about how young children spend too much time staring at various screens for far too long. Conversely, public- and private school students in early elementary school are assigned electronic tablets with built-in smart technology to use in the event of a weather cancellation or professional development day for the faculty.
There is a very real, very effective change in world culture due in large part to the sharing of information. “We have seen a shift between someone’s right to know and someone’s right to privacy,” the author said during a free talk at Indiana University in October of 2015 (Church). The addiction to read and share has rapidly altered our existance, and Eggers, through the vehicle of Mercer’s character, is showing us that it is not too late to turn back and enjoy the simple act of face-to-face interaction.
The novel’s central character is twenty-four-year old Mae Holland, whose expensive private college education has launched her into the unengaging world of her city’s utility company. The novel begins with Mae being granted an opportunity to work at The Circle, a vastly growing technology company whose IPO has already surpassed an astounding $3 Billion in earnings (Eggers 20). The company rolls out earth-changing ideas on a regular basis and has even more in the works that are occassionally announced during their monthy Dream Friday meetings, led by one of the “Three Wise Men” founders, Eamon Bailey. Mae’s initiation into the company is utterly overwhelming, both to her and the reader. Everything from the idyllic landscape to the countless on-campus learning/gathering opportunities impresses upon Mae and the world that The Circle embodies the future of the biz-tech world. It is where Mae, beginning with her first steps on the grounds, finally feels a sense of worth that, it must be noted, she clearly lacked at the utility company and has never experienced on a personal level, especially when she was Mercer’s girlfriend years earlier.
Mae’s father has obtained Multiple Sclerosis, resulting in her parents having to devote a large portion of their income toward medication and doctor visits. It is during a visit home that the true impact of the disease makes its unfortunate presence known to Mae. Shortly into her tenure at The Circle, that same sense of worth extends to her parents being granted top-shelf medical coverage–coverage that is far from customary in mainstream America. Yet, this unforeseen perk does not come off as bribery or anything sinister. If anything, the gesture of parental coverage further proves to Mae that this company is purposefully unlike any other American company in history. They genuinely care about the well-being of their employees, their employees’ families, and the citizens of the world.
Furthermore, in the first major scene where Mercer and Mae are present, the reader is sated with an exposure to their tumultuous relationship. Eggers establishes the central character’s new-found positivity through a conversation she has with her parents shortly after beginning her new career. Her salary has escalated to a respectable “sixty-two” [thousand] and, in her mother’s view, that Mae works for “the hottest company…and has full dental” (Eggers 73). Her father, who has exhibited little more than constant exhaustion and aggravation, chirps up when he learns that she has stock options (Eggers 74). They express their adoration for their daughter and her friend Annie, who helped secure the position.
Mercer is first mentioned a breath later. Readers learn that he is a craftsman who “makes chandeliers out of antlers”, which, presumably Mae is mocking as unimportant or insignificant, especially when compared to the massive, global changes The Circle is making (Eggers 75). Her father lassos his daughter’s tone by suggesting that owning and operating one’s own business is far from easy work, but Mae quickly shifts the discussion of one of her ex-boyfriend’s career to her own early success at The Circle. This snippet of information about Mercer clearly establishes him as the “anti-Mae”, and the reader cannot help but become curious if he will unfold as a foil, a rekindled love interest, or a bold antagonist–should the plot continue to display Mae’s (and The Circle’s) positive impact on the world.
Before returning to her new life and job, Mae realizes she has some extra time before needing to be back and spontaneously elects to go kayaking. We learn that Mercer is responsible for teaching Mae the ins and outs about the water activity, which creates the sport as an obvious symbol for two major themes of the book: Independence and The Past. By assigning an activity for one person to be able to enjoy alone, Eggers cleverly shows how Mae still clings to the solace of being on her own without any responsibilities beyond staying alive. Furthermore, the choice fits Mae very well because she has already been established as one who is drawn to challenges and has an apparent undying drive to prove herself to the world. The note that Mercer is the one who turned her on to the sport also suggests that Mae is not willing to completely abandon any and all connections with Mercer. Though it is reasonable to believe that Mercer was not at the forefront of her brain every time she stepped into a kayak, he remains a constant in her subconscious. Similarly, many people today–in this social media culture of recording and publishing for limited and widespread audiences–might feel an obligation simply to enjoy the experience without the incessant postings to prove they are enjoying the experience. Yet, the number of social media users continues to grow.
A short time later, after Mae has adjusted to her new role with The Circle and has adapted to the social structure of after-hours parties and gathering with her new co-workers, she receives the same short repeated message from her mother: “Come home” (Eggers 126). Her ailing father had suffered a seizure, and rather naturally, Mae rushes home to see him. Upon arrival, she learns that “Mercer was a lifesaver” (Eggers 128). Though Mae downplays the potential hyperbole in the comment, it becomes evident that she is more upset with the fact that she dropped everything at work, frantically rushed back to her hometown, and found her father sitting casually on the couch viewing a baseball game than she is with the fact that this disease is adversely affecting her father in the way it is.
This is a major turning point in the novel and in the relationship between Mae and Mercer. Eggers is examining the two main viewpoints of the usefulness of techonology through the vehicles of the central character and her former lover. Mercer is the only one of her four long-term former boyfriends who is still even in her life in some capacity. His continued friendship with her parents allows him to remain tethered to her, regardless of how much she wishes he was completely out of her life. Eggers, thus, is dangling the possibility that Mercer represents her subconscious moral perspective, but her life has become clouded and overwhelmed with the incessent need to share everything and like everyone and smile at all good causes. It’s the sharing that becomes central to the sub-plot of how she and Mercer develop as civil adults who once dated.
During a meal at her parents where Mercer is the lone guest, Mae notices that one of his antler chandeliers is now hanging in the home in which she grew up. Without his permission or knowledge, Mae secretly takes a picture and adds some complimentary notes. It is fair to assume she had the best of intentions by doing this. Mercer, she must have concluded, was not able to live a very extravagent life as a craftsman of woodsy home decor. Before the evening has concluded–and well after Mae is slightly ostracized by her parents for being unable to simply enjoy the company and meal–she reveals that the picture has been sent out and is receiving very positive feeback.
Almost childishly, Mae has, by this point, been swept up into this Otherworld while still in her parents’ house talking with her ex-boyfriend. She’s out to impress them all with the connections she has and potential impact she can have on the future of his sales. The problem, of course, is that Mercer does not want anything remotely close to this. She excitedly reports to him that he has earned “122 smiles”, which is “an incredible amount to get so quickly” (Eggers 258). Furthermore, she tells him that he’s “in the top fifty for today” on a site named DesignMind that apparently ranks the popularity of designs (Eggers 258-9). Then, in a selfish turn of events, Mae realizes that this amount of late-evening online activity will boost her “PartiRank into the 1800s” (Eggers 259).
Eggers here is clearly displaying how quickly the addiction of online presence and popularity so quickly replaces the thirst for human interaction. Mercer stands with Mae–notably without a phone in his hand–and, at first, is calmly asking her to stop, but Mae is already talking faster than she’s thinking. The device in her hand was designed for communication, but she cannot even put it down long enough to appease her guest in her parents’ house. Discouragement toward her device comes from Mercer and her mother, but Mae is oblivious to Mercer’s departure from the dinner. When she goes out to catch him, he reluctantly puts the car in park.
This scene, in the literal center of the book, is agonizingly crucial to Eggers’ central theme. In what becomes a heated discussion about the trajectory of each of their lives, we witness what might be years of suppressed angst toward one another rise to the surface and toward one another. This relationship, arguably, is a microcosm of this crossroads Eggers identified early in the smart technology age–especially among young people whose homes have had internet access their entire lives.
Among the most cutting lines toward Mae is that Mercer reveals that he has “never felt more that there is some cult taking over the world” (Eggers 260). He continues to describe receiving a sales pitch of a product called “Homie” that, in essence, is an application that informs stores and distributors that a consumer is low on a product, thus removing the need to shop–online or in person–for a replacement item. Predictably, Mae comes to the defense of her company and dismisses that it is not on the agenda of The Circle or any other company to seek “world dominiation” (Eggers 261). Though Mercer provides multiple examples of this enclosing circle being masked as a “utopian vision,” his claims fall on Mae’s deaf ears (Eggers 261). She calls him “paranoid” and “ignorant,” and she compares these ultra-fast tools such as Homie to primative, recognizable images of milkmen and butchers (Eggers 261). What is overwhelmingly present during this staunch argument emerges as the central theme of the book: As convenient and as progressive as the claims of The Circle (or other companies and possibly governments) are, is it morally appropriate to allow it to continue solely on the notion that “They” have no ulterior, devious motive to do so?
Mercer serves as an literary anomoly in this novel. His is a secondary role overall, but he is by far the most developed human in these 500+ pages. He’s not a true antagonist either because he represents the moral compass. It has been argued that Eggers’ style and development of these characters falls far short of what he had produced in previous novels such as Zeitoun and What is the What, but it is painfully obvious that Eggers, in The Circle, has yet another trick up his over-forty sleeve. By relying on our conditioned expectation that Mercer will eventually pull Mae out of this twisted screen-obsessed, privacy-limiting world, he simultaneously leads the reader through a series of traditional complications that are eventually upended and unsettling.
Mercer’s role is downplayed by other critics, however. Fernanda Moore notes the growing disparity between the former lovers, but views the chandelier artist as a “tendentious drip” (62). What Moore might fail to realize is that Eggers uses Mercer–rather mercifully–in order for his young audience to comprehend the mentality. In short, of course he’s a bit of a “drip” but this information-obsessed generation has, through no fault of their own, been conditioned to receive information as quickly and as succinctly as possible. In order for The Circle to work and affect those born with a silver modem in their bedroom, Eggers realized he must not and cannot make Mercer a cryptic character.
The brilliant underlying method behind all of this is the rather simplistic nature of their thoughts, actions, and statements. As Mae becomes more and more flustered by Mercer’s case after the ruined dinner gathering, all she can muster in response to the Mercer’s meticulous aresenal of diminuitive statements about her job and her unexciting existance toward her is “Fuck you, Mercer” and “You’re such a fucker, Mercer” (Eggers 262). These sharply tongued responses are not from someone who has been deprived of an education. They are, however, snippets of how a world of limited response time and space online is transferring to a generational regression of substance in face-to-face communication. Mercer, whose use of the Internet is limited to an email account and a website, formulates articulate, evidence-laden statements and Mae is limited to the childish, defense mechanism of downplaying his claims and resorting to vulgarity.
Mercer falls back into the depths of Mae’s past for some time before he surfaces in Book II. By this point, the two former lovers have not had any contact whatsoever. Mae has shot through the ranks at The Circle and has all but become the fresh face of the newest innovation from the company: Transparency. This willingness–notably through the charming and cunning acts of Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton, two of the original Three Wise Men who founded The Circle–leads to an evaporation of anything Mae might have at one point in her life deemed private, boring, or insignificant. By wearing a device that enables viewers to see (and virtually “do”) whatever she sees, Mae rallies for followers and smiles under the direction of her superiors. At no point does Mae consider Bailey or Stenton to be devious puppeteers parading her around as a human laboratory experiment, which, it seems, is so very obviously what they are doing.
Coincidentally, during a visit to Mae’s parents’ house, Mercer caught one of his former girlfriend’s Circle video feeds, and it spawned from him a letter that he later placed in her vehicle while she was inside the home. In it, Mercer-slash-Eggers seems to be desparate in his plea to Mae (who by now clearly represents a generation of untalented-but-famous twenty-somethings). The letter includes far fewer cutting commentary and serves more as a request for her to look at herself and her company in a philosophical manner. Among his questions to her are the following: “Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day?” (Eggers 434). Interestingly, the letter is interrupted because Mae’s audience can read it with her and have begun chiming in with negative commentary about being bored and comparing Mercer to Sasquatch. Moore dismisses this exchange as an example of how Eggers has “so much contempt” for this “lost generation” and that the author has basically evolved from a “literary wunderkind” to a seedy “curmudgeon” (62). However, the scene serves well as Eggers’ continuing commentary on the shortening of attention spans and unwillingness to simply experience–in this case, read–something without feeling the need to offer a snarky line or any comment whatsoever.
Mercer letter continues, and in it he expresses his plans to leave his hometown and is “moving north” (Eggers 435). There exists a somber, failing tone as he goes on. It seems as if he already knows his fate, but he continues on, as if he has not quite come to terms with what the world around him is becoming. He tells Mae that “[she] and [The Circle] have won,” that “[i]t’s pretty much over,” but that he has “held out some hope that the madness was limited to” The Circle (Eggers 435). What the author is doing here is showing us the bed our society is on track to make for itself. The reader yearns for Mercer. The reader wants Mae to rip off her Transparency device, throw her car in Drive, and go find this one man who still appreciates the wonders of this world far from any screen. Mercer is admirable. Mercer is honest. Mercer is what humans always claim they want to be.
Yet, even though he plans to “be off the grid” and live “underground, and in the desert, in the woods…like refugees, or hermits”, two things become frighteningly clear: his quest/escape will not last long and, quite miserably, Mae will have no change of heart based on any of his thoughts or warnings. With this inaction, her last real attempt to get him back in her life, Mae is fully formed as a one-dimensional being who is far more satisifed with a rocket-fire increase in online fandom than accepting her friend’s words as poignant and shedding this obsession with virtual popularity. Here, she has lost all credibility and any remaining hope for moral goodness. Eggers masterfully uses Mercer to provide multiple opportunities for Mae to become deep, honrorable, and sound. However, because none of those attributes ever come to fruition, Mercer’s character is highlighted as one of the few remaining sane members in a rapidly evolving insane world.
Weirdly, his death is almost comforting to a reader. No longer will Mercer fight a daily battle with a society that is closing in on completing The Circle but who lack general sense and traditional manners. Gone for him is this ever-increasing pressure to “get connected” or “be active online”. Never again will Mercer have to click several links on a web page in order to have a customer-service representative assist him with a bill or a warranty.
Reviewer Alexander Nazaryan has another intriguing take on Eggers’ attempt to offer a visual aid to what he deems to be the trajectory of the world. “This is a novel about the silence in your head,” he writes, and notes the drone-led search for the escaping character as “worthy of Orwell” (Nazaryan).
A character like Mercer actually must die in a dystopian novel such as The Circle for the reader to grasp any real hope for the future. What emerges as the most disconcerting conversation in the novel. Typically, the wiser, older character who has watched over a traditional protagonist proffers sage advice and perspective after the sudden loss of a friend or family member. Here, however, Eamon Bailey coldy–though it is not recognized as such by his single-member audience–tells Mae that “[g]rief doesn’t arrive on schedule, as much as we’d like it to” (Eggers 466). He doesn’t want her to blame herself for Mercer’s death, but suggests that she should instead remember that she was “trying to help a very disturbed, antisocial young man” who turned away from “the embrace of humanity” (Eggers 466). Bailey later reflects aloud on his own frustration about similar situations and finds himself telling her that Mercer would still be alive if he’d been in a self-driving vehicle. This cold, distanced commentary is a preview of what Mae will be bound to experience throughout the remainder of her life. Sympathy and empathy appear to be absent from those who are within The Circle. Mourning an avoidable death is, essentially, an infringement on their time and might affect onine activity or presence. The fact that moments later Bailey and Mae are discussing the financial cost of rebuilding the bridge where Mercer died is chilling. What is even more offensive is that Mae continues to nod and agree and accept these discussions as normal.
Ultimately, Mae “meets” the third Wise Man, Ty Gospidinov. During their tense exchange, he reveals that he has had a change of heart and is working to keep The Circle from completing. Mae is astounded to learn this and ends up regurgitating much of what Bailey had just discussed with her, defending The Circle to no end, all the while suppressing the death of her former boyfriend and the withered condition of her former roommate. Here, Eggers shows the utterly shocking lack of personal growth that Mae has experienced.
Ty eventually asks her directly, “[w]ho wants to be watched all the time?” (Eggers 490). Her response is succinct, just like her personality: “I do. I want to be seen. I want proof I existed.” She needs validation, not experience. She prefers online followers to a cozy sunset. Mercer was once her lover and had become her anti-self. Through her undeniable obsession with being acknowledged, liked, followed, or smiled upon by millions of strangers across the world, she has set herself up for a life that is not worth living.
Mercer, like so many people today, grasped what Mae never could: our lives are so precious that we are on track to miss out on life’s most amazing treasures because we cannot stop ourselves from sharing pictures and comments online about life’s most amazing treasures.
Church, Haley. “Dave Eggers Discusses Pitfalls of Living Life Online.” Indiana University Bloomington. 8 Oct. 2015. http://mediaschool.indiana.edu/news/dave-eggers-discusses-pitfalls-of-living-life-online/. Accessed 16 Oct. 2017.
Eggers, Dave. The Circle. Vintage, 2013.
Moore, Fernanda. “These Rotten Kids Today.” Commentary. Vol. 137, no. 1. Jan. 2014, pp. 61-62.
Moore, Fernanda. “These Rotten Kids Today: Dave Eggers Hates Them.” Commentary, no. 1, 2014, p. 61. EBSCOhost, fortwayne.libproxy.ivytech.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.fortwayne.libproxy.ivytech.edu.allstate.libproxy.ivytech.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgbc&AN=edsgcl.355249979&site=eds-live.
Nazaryan, Alexander. “Digital Dystopia: On Dave Eggers’ ‘The Circle’.” Newsweek Global. Vol. 161 Issue 38, 25 Oct. 2013